To reach the MLS Cup for a second time, the New York Red Bulls will have to do what’s never been done before — rally from a 3-0 deficit after the opening leg of a playoff series.
They also have the blueprint, according to coach Chris Armas, from the Eastern Conference semifinals a few weeks ago.
“It is going to be difficult. It always was going to be,” Armas said after the game. “We put ourselves in a hole, but we came out of a series where we scored three in our building. That is the goal. That’s the starting point. We will score the first goal, and the rest will follow. We will come out a little bit differently, with the energy and the fight that is going to be needed. It is pretty clear what is needed to be done. We are going to go home and we are going to get it done.”
The Red Bulls looked like a different team the last time they met Atlanta in late September in Harrison, N.J. Their patented pressure caused havoc, Atlanta’s star striker, Josef Martinez, was largely a pedestrian and the Red Bulls created numerous chances. Goals came from Danny Royer from the penalty spot and Tim Parker on a tap-in. Kaku nearly had a third goal, but Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan denied his penalty kick in a comprehensive 2-0 home win.
“At home, we are very confident,” New York midfielder Sean Davis said. “We love playing at home in front of our fans and we have been great there all year. It is important for us to get a first goal early, and then press for the game. It is going to require absolutely everything from us to get the result.”
The Red Bulls looked nothing like themselves during Sunday’s opening leg. They sat back and allowed Atlanta to possess instead of pressing. A defense that conceded the fewest goals during the regular season, allowed three goals for just the fifth time this year.
Nov 25, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (center) celebrates with teammates after scoring against the New York Red Bulls during the second half of the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
On the second goal, after Michael Parkhurst won the ball in midfield, Miguel Almiron turned into space and, again without pressure, slipped the ball through to Julian Gressel. The German cut the ball back on his first touch and, because the Red Bulls collapsed on Martinez in the box, Franco Escobar had an open shot from 13 yards out.
And on Hector Villalba’s stoppage-time goal that could well be the one that sinks the Red Bulls, several New York players caught up field trying to press Escobar jogged back. Villalba again had ample time and space to pull the ball onto his left foot and push a low shot to the right of goalkeeper Luis Robles, who was rooted to his spot.
“I think, just looking at the way that we gave up the goals, we lacked some discipline,” Robles said. “We made it a little too easy for them. When you have a team as talented as them, and you make mistakes, they are going to punish you.”
Kemar Lawrence was sorely missed. The Jamaican fullback, who was influential in both regular season wins over Atlanta, picked up a knock at training this week and was unavailable.
But Armas refused to use that injury as an excuse and backed veteran Connor Lade, who was Lawrence’s replacement.
“Kemar is a big part of things around here. He has had a great year, we all know that. Maybe he will be back for Leg 2, we’ll see, he is day-to-day,” Armas said. “But more importantly, Connor Lade stepped in and did a good job. He was solid. He gave everything like we knew that he would. It was a big test, a lot of direct play. He was fearless on the night. Connor stood up admirably, I believe.”
Belief is something Armas has, even if the odds are heavily stacked against the Red Bulls entering Thursday’s second leg.
“We were down 3-0 at home against Columbus earlier in the year, and with five more minutes we would have tied that thing up, but we only had 45 minutes and we did it,” Armas said. “With 90 minutes, we are going to go after it. One goal at a time.”